The United States is rapidly becoming a majority-minority nation. Yet, the composition of Oscars voters, and this year’s Academy Awards nominees, is still overwhelmingly white.
For the second straight year, the Oscar nominees within the major categories are all white men or women. Not a single African or Asian American, Latina/o or Native American was nominated.
Another Oscars’ whitewash has spurred social media protests (#OscarsSoWhite), criticism from within Hollywood, and even a call for boycott demanding “more diversity“. Demands for greater diversity within American cinema, whether within films themselves or award recognitions, are not new. They were launched five, 10 and 20 years ago.
These demands for more diversity have rendered token progress. In years after protests, Halle Berry won the Best Actress in the Leading Role category in 2001, and in 2013, Lupita Nyang’o won the Best Actress in a Supporting Role in 2013 for 12 Years a Slave.
Yet, these moments of minority recognition are fleeting and far between. And almost always, followed by award whitewashes or near whitewashes. Illustrating that demands for mere or more diversity should be replaced, or recast, with calls demanding structural reform within the Academy itself.
Hollywood or Hollywhite?
Oscar voters are old, wealthy, white, and men. Not unlike every other hall of US power, this narrow demographic controls which films are made, which actors are cast, and certainly, which films and actors deserve Oscar recognition.
Ninety-four percent of the Academy are white; 77 percent are men; African-Americans comprise roughly 2 percent of the Academy, while Latina/o voters are less than 2 percent. Other communities of colour, including Asian, Arab and Native Americans, are virtually non-existent within the Oscar voting committee.
Perhaps America’s quintessential old boys’ network, a virtually all-white Academy is the principal reason the 2016 Oscar nominations were once again swept by white men and women.
If the racial composition of Oscar voters remains almost entirely white and male, then the composition of the nominees will follow in that very line.
Not unlike an informally segregated golf course, or corporate boardroom, these gatekeepers not only determine – in the words of Martin Scorsese – who’s “in the frame and what’s out”. But also, whose cinematic performances and contributions, creativity and impact, are awarded.
Moreover, the racial identity of the Academy illustrates why films centering on minority narratives – like Ryan Coogler’s Creed or F Gary Gray’s biopic, Straight Outta Compton – did not resonate with voters, and ultimately, were not nominated.
The latter film, depicting the story of the landmark rap group NWA was both critical and a box office hit. But the nearly all-black cast, featuring the rise, fall and impact of the controversial rap collective and its iconic members, likely clashed with the interests and sensibilities of Oscar voters.
One member of the Academy, a white male, stated, “I happen to think Straight Outta Compton is not a great film for reasons of structure and substance.”
Perhaps fittingly, the-all white music industry that feared and didn’t understand NWA nearly three decades ago mirrors the all-white Oscar voters who don’t understand Straight Outta Compton today. History certainly repeats itself. But this time, within another segment of the entertainment industry also dominated by white, old, wealthy men.
Structural instead of symbolic diversity
The reoccurring demands for racial diversity should be redirected from the Oscar nominations and towards the Academy itself. Certainly, if the racial composition of Oscar voters remains almost entirely white and male, then the composition of the nominees will follow in that very line.
Though interrupted some years by nominations and awards to filmmakers or actors of colour, this shouldn’t be perceived as emblematic of racial progress in Hollywood, but as intermittent deviations from the norm that are more superficial and strategic than symbolic of structural inclusion.
Meaningful racial diversity within the Academy itself should be reframed as the goal. Namely, integrating black and brown voters that can relate to the structure and feel the substance of Straight Outta Compton. And including gatekeepers of colour that represent the racial and multicultural evolution of the country, who will greenlight films and recognise performances that reflect the changing demographics within the country.
In cinema, African American narratives are ghettoised within a separated “black films” industry. Latina/o American storylines are branded foreign and unmarketable, while this demographic ranks as the fastest growing population in the country.
And Muslim depictions in cinema virtually limited to terrorist villains and national security threats, intensifying the hateful political rhetoric and on-the-ground Islamophobia gripping the country. A brand of bigoted diversity, as illustrated by the six Oscar nominations American Sniper received last year, Oscar voters are more than keen to celebrate.
To put things into perspective, American Sniper – a film lionising a soldier indiscriminately gunning down Iraqis – received six more nominations than actors or filmmakers combined both in 2015 and 2016. And one more Oscar award.
A film depicting the brutal execution of minorities is more deserving of Oscar recognition than films humanising minorities. This message, unlike the structure and substance of Straight Outta Compton, resonated resoundingly with Oscar voters.
Soft power and subtle racism
Films are far more than films. They, perhaps more than another medium, are the salient shapers of views on politics and culture, beauty and identity. Particularly American cinema, consumed by viewers in every country in the world, and emulated by film industries near and far.
Apart from exporting the most recent blockbuster or action hit, Hollywood also exports the prevailing face of racism, colourism, and the underlying messages and patent images that whiteness is the benchmark. While the casting out of black and brown bodies reaffirms deeply rooted racial castes that brand these groups inferior.
Calls for mere or more diversity in Oscar nominations will not change the natural trajectory of white supremacy within Hollywood. Demands for structural instead of token diversity – followed by meaningful reform – will.
Khaled A Beydoun is an assistant professor of law at the Barry University Dwayne O Andreas School of Law. He is a native of Detroit.
Abed Ayoub is the legal director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, DC, and is a native of Detroit.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.